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New Figures Show High Dropout Rate

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 10, 2007

First lady Laura Bush and national education leaders yesterday unveiled an online database that promises to provide parents across much of the nation the first accurate appraisal of how many students graduate from high school on time in each school system.

The statistics paint a dire portrait: Seventy percent of students nationwide earned diplomas in four years as of 2003, the latest data available nationally, a much lower rate than that reported by the vast majority of school systems. According to the database, Washington area graduation rates ranged from 94 percent in Loudoun and Falls Church to a low of 59 percent in the District, with most other systems falling in the 60s, 70s and low 80s.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the data show that half of the nation's dropouts come from a small group of largely urban "dropout factories," high schools "where graduation is a 50-50 shot or worse." She scolded state and local education officials for masking the problem by publishing inflated graduation rates based on bad math.

"We are finally moving from a state of denial to a state of acknowledgment," she said, speaking in Washington at a summit titled America's Silent Epidemic. "It's hard to believe such a pervasive problem has remained in the shadows for so long."

Most states, including Virginia, Maryland and the District, continue to report graduation rates by a method that, while accepted by the federal government, has been rejected by much of the academic community and was roundly criticized yesterday by federal officials. They estimate the graduation rate based on the number of students known to have dropped out. The problem is, few public high schools track every student who drops out.

"In some states," Spellings said, "a student is counted as a dropout only if he registers as a dropout. That's unlikely."

The publication of the new national database, compiled by the trade journal Education Week, signals a sweeping change in how graduates are counted. The site tabulates graduation data for school systems based on simple attrition, tracking the dwindling size of a high school class from the fall of freshman year to graduation day.

Bush, in a lunchtime speech, urged the nation's parents to consult the database and "find out if your community has a dropout problem."

The summit marks a growing national sense that high schools are facing a dropout crisis. The extent of the problem -- only two students in three graduate with their class -- has been clear for years within the education community but not among members of the general public, who, according to surveys, believe that nearly 90 percent of students graduate from high school.

Speakers stressed that dropout rates are particularly high among black and Hispanic students, especially males.

Prince George's County schools reported a 90 percent graduation rate for 2003. The new database shows a graduation rate of 67 percent for that system. More than half of the dropouts, it shows, never make it to the 10th grade.

Montgomery schools reported a 93 percent graduation rate for that year, but the database puts it at 82 percent. In that county, the database shows, the largest group of dropouts exits the system during 12th grade.

The District reported a graduation rate of 71 percent for 2003. The new database calculates the true graduation rate at a dozen points lower, with a steady exodus across the grades.

All 50 governors have embraced the new method -- a slight variation on the formula employed by Education Week -- for calculating graduation rates. Virginia schools will use the new formula by 2008, the District by 2010 and Maryland by 2011. Parents will probably see a precipitous drop in graduation rates reported by many high schools.

"I think you have to be honest with the people," said Mike Easley (D), governor of North Carolina, who participated in a panel discussion yesterday with two other governors.

Spellings also announced that graduation rates will be incorporated into the federal No Child Left Behind law by 2012 as a measure of adequate yearly progress for every high school, along with test scores and other factors.

Schools will have to meet federal targets for black and Hispanic students and other statistical subgroups, as well, a requirement likely to stir considerable anxiety in low-performing school systems.

Jynell Harrison, a 19-year-old graduate of Central High School in Providence, R.I., who is black, lamented her school district's 54 percent graduation rate and said, "I almost got lost, too."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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